Tag Archives: snow

Snow and Seabirds

I spent the week running up to Easter in the Varanger region of northern Norway.  I had gone in search of snow only to find that I needn’t have bothered as there was a major last dump of it here (almost as soon as I had left actually).  My target though was seabirds and in spite of being significantly further north than here in the usually gulf stream dominated Britain, the birds in this remote corner of Europe, well inside the arctic circle, had already started to come ashore such is the intense competition for the best breeding spots.

This was probably best demonstrated by the presence of the ever noisy, but nevertheless my personal favourite from the gull family – the Kittiwake.

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I have photographed these delicate birds on the ice and glaciers to be found even further north in Svalbard, but their nest-sites on the huge cliffs there are snow-free in the summer months.  Here though they were still going through the pairing and bonding rituals that always start their breeding season but doing so in locations that were clearly not ready for nest building yet: they just knew they would be in a few weeks time and were staking their claims now – generally in their usual noisy manner!

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Kittiwakes prefer narrow ledges for breeding and act as very independent couples, but Guillemots are much more social in their approach and during the day were gathering in vast numbers on the flatter more open areas of cliff – again though still covered in snow but increasingly compacted and dirtied by their presence.

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The late evening light and the presence of some deep icy blue shadows on the cliffs across the nearby inlet provided both the light and background to work on a few flight shots, but as you’ll see from the second of these images the sky was so full of birds it was really hard to pick any individuals out!

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The weather was typically variable and when some of the occasionally very squally arctic storms blew in from the north the birds were increasingly reluctant to come ashore and spent their time wheeling around and around the cliff faces.

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Other than the resident Shags that is who took it on themselves to sit out said atrocious weather (the wind whipping the snow around was a bit like having an army of kids armed with peashooters aiming at your face).  Mind you the idiot with a camera trying to take their picture was probably just as bedraggled by the time the conditions cleared!

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When conditions were calmer then the main reasons for my visit became increasingly comfortable setting foot ashore in isolation and these images of Razorbills sitting in pristine white snow were very much what I had in mind when venturing here.

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Some of you will be aware that I have been working on a Puffin focussed project for a number of summers now and when the chance to capture some of them in these really unusual conditions finally arose then for me the trip was made!

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My thanks to friend and colleague Paul Hobson for his company on this trip – one that in spite of the conditions here at home really did the miles to be travelled to find the unusual combination of seabirds and snow.

Arctic Adventure…Part 2

Although the landscape, the general environment and simply the sense of wonder of the place is a huge part of Svalbard’s attraction, the wildlife (although requiring a fair bit of work to find in good situations) is as dramatic and enjoyable to photograph as anywhere I’ve been.

Such is my love for seabirds that when I first visited here these Little Auk’s were as high on my personal priority list as Polar Bears, and it was a pleasure to once again spend an enjoyable evening in their presence such is their personality and character.

We were slightly earlier this year and they were earlier in their breeding cycle and as a consequence even more chilled out in terms of their behaviour!  They nest under the rocks of the many scree slopes here, and some of the patterns on the rocks themselves were worthy of images in their own right.

We managed to enjoy a number of walks around the beautiful early summer tundra too, and here the lichens and flowers were just beginning to take a hold and announce their presence.

One of the highlights of this habitat here is the stunning Grey Phalarope (confusing called Red Phalarope by the rest of the world it seems) who had just arrived to beginning their short breeding season, unusual in that the colourful male does all the work of nest-building, egg incubating and chick feeding/tending: the even more showy female simply provides the eggs and then returns south, so we were in a very narrow window of time to enjoy the presence of both genders.

For most though Svalbard and the arctic is all about a couple of large mammals, and whether it be swimming, sleeping or playing there is no getting away from the larger than life personalities of the Atlantic Walrus – thankfully making good increases in population here after it’s almost devastation in the whaling era.

Among the highlights of a number of engagements with these bulky beasts was a more tender moment spent with a young mother and calf, resting and feeding on a large ice floe in front of a glacier: the youngster was almost certainly just a few days old and hadn’t grown into his wrinkles yet!

No trip here though, and certainly no blog recounting one, would be complete without Polar Bear – this truly is their domain here.  Finding them is always exciting but doing so in a setting that really does them justice rather than the snow and ice free beaches that many of them are left to spend the summer scavenging on, is somewhat harder.  Our plan had been to head up to the pack ice to look for such settings but the weather and winds conspired against us on this occasion but we had no sooner returned to the one bay we had found with a covering of ice than an adult make successfully caught a seal – an amazing hunting feat and a privilege to watch.  It was clear this was a good area to spend some time so we duly anchored up and spent 3 days there and were reward with some of the most relaxed and absorbing behaviour in front of us during that time, the highlight of which was a young male, probably 3 years old and enjoying his first summer away from Mum!

He spent an entire afternoon parading around the ice, hunting and even playing with some of the bits of seal left behind by the larger male the day before!

Wandering off that evening we settled down for some sleep and planning to move on the next day, only to awaken to the fact that he had returned and he too had gone to sleep on the ice beside the boat!

The advantages of a small yacht had really come to the fore – by being moored up where we were for so long we had effectively become part of his environment in the same way as a hide, and he was truly relaxed in our presence treating us to some truly engaging images and an experience I for one will never forget.

A fitting highlight of another great adventure in this wonderful part of the world and an iconic image to close that for me sums up this magnificent mammal in his kingdom.

So much more though…

Having waxed lyrical about the Bison that are undoubtedly the icons of Yellowstone it wouldn’t be right to simply leave my recollections of the trip at them alone; there’s so much more in terms of both wildlife and landscape and a sheer sense of awe that the Park creates.

The Park “enjoys” 3.5 million visitors a year – an amazing number that peaks in August with Old Faithful attracting some 25,000 visitors each day to see it’s regular spoutings. I simply can’t comprehend what that must be like as an experience, but as I prodded around in the snow surrounding it I found some of the benches that must be jam-packed every hour at that time of the year.  The winter months see only 150,000 of those visitors so when I watched this iconic geyser erupt there was only ever me, a dozen or so individuals dotted around and the occasional Bison wandering past too – much more my thing!

When it came to photographing the less regularly erupting Castle Geyser in the middle of the night, perhaps unsurprisingly we were the only people there at all!

The power of the geothermal activity in the Park, much of which is in fact inside the caldera of effectively a giant volcano, has a profound impact on the landscape and the life that exists around it.  Trees are literally dissolved through their root systems (the locals affectionately call them bobby sox trees), are killed by the acidic solutions in the thermal waters, and the vibrant colours of the calcium carbonate deposited on the surface in the dramatic terraces that can be found at Mammoth Hot Springs in particular are a sight to behold.

The wildlife in the park is not obvious in the still of a sunny winters day or the constant blizzards that alternate through this toughest of seasons, but it’s there to be found and nowhere more so than the dramatic Hayden and Lamar Valleys.  Besides the Bison the species that eek out a winter here are surprising in their variety – Bighorn Sheep clamber acrobatically around the steeper slopes where the snow struggles to settle in search of shoots, American Dipper find the odd ice hole in the otherwise frozen rivers to search for fry, Elk follow the Bisons trail in their own large herds and the wiley Coyote looks to pick up the scraps from those that don’t manage to survive the harsh conditions.

Winter is always a photographically fantastic season, especially in a place where snow is a given: here it’s piled high all around and with the almost constant wind that whistles through the valleys it’s always blowing and drifting too. Add into the mix some inspiring settings, some thought-provoking experiences experiencing the natural world coping with the conditions as it always has (even swathes of Loldgepole Pine, burned to a crisp in past summer forest fires can be seen regenerating themselves) and beauty in amongst the harshness too, perhaps personified by the winter visiting Tundra Swans who seemed as at home as any in this harsh but beautiful place.

Beautiful Bison

I finally feel as if I’m on top of things again after a frantic fortnight or so back from spending most of last month working in the USA. First on the agenda was running a trip to Yellowstone with my Natures Images colleague Danny Green, and after lots of organising and some high anticipation levels following multiple viewings of the winter episode of the BBC’s production it lived up to all expectaions and more.

The park itself was the first state owned national park in the world, and although it offers much in terms of variety for a nature photographer it’s highlight in terms of visibility has to be its Bison population.  In the winter months they tend to move away from their summer breeding grounds into the areas of greatest geothermal activity as the warmth from hot springs and geysers such as the famous Old Faithful above gives them more chance to find something to munch on for energy.

Watching these large and powerful beasts slowly working their way through the snow, their immense neck muscles working overtime to push the feet deep snow away to reach the poor quality grass underneath I could only wonder at just how they managed to find enough to sustain their massive frames.

As we spent more time in their proximity it was also clear that although they are more than capable of aggression, particularly in self-defence, and that Bison related injuries are the highest accident recorded in the park each year, there’s also a sense of docility and maybe even resignation to their life when you managed to look closely into their eyes.

 It was only as the trip wore on and the weather turned into the harsh heavy snowfalls for which the park is renowned (we had in excess of 18 inches in just one night!) that their resignation to the sheer challenges of their existence really became apparent though, and watching group and individuals try to stand sit or trudge their way through the blizzards as well as continue their relentless efforts in search of nutrition, my respect for these amazing animals just continued to grow.

These proved to be among the hardest conditions I have had to photograph in – not so much because of the cold as I genuinely don’t mind that but the sheer volume of snow falling was constantly filling up the lens hood, blurring my vision and meant the autofocus, as good as it is on my Mk4, was completely redundant! Manual focussing was the order of the day and it was a reminder of just what it used to be like in the days of split prism screens, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how high a percentage of my images were sharp – mind you it’s probably a good job they were a decent size subject and not moving too quickly!

Some of the herds we encountered were approaching 40 or 50 in number – impressive enough but not a patch on the size that there would have been here before western civilisation reached this part of the world: one can only imagine what these snowfields must have looked like 200 or so years ago.

My abiding memories of these magnificent animals though will be their resiliance; how they just seem to keep on going wherever they may be headed, whether it’s sun, snow or hot steam they are having to contend with they just keep their heads down and get on with life: a few lessons to be learned here for some others perhaps!